In the Veneto region, the most northern part of Italy, the grappa industry has been dominant for more than a century and has been marked by illustrous names like Bortolo Nardini, Vittorio Gianni Capovilla, Gio Batta Poli and many others.
Today I visit Poli Distillerie in Schiavon (province of Vicenza, Veneto), a family run grappa distillery with a tumultuous history (1898) going from destructive fires, near bankruptcy, family resilience to economic prosperity. Now distributing to 63 countries Poli Distillerie harbours a distillery, underground warehouses, a shop, a tasting room, a museum and an extensive library. The wonderful reddish copper colour of the alembiques and column stills is an essential part of the total design of Poli’s trademark and appearance. This tasteful industrial design of copper piping is also radiated in the Poli shops in various cities of which I visited two in both Venice and Bassano del Grappa this past week.
The very moment I set foot in the Poli still room the many odours trigger detailed memories of past visits to Italy. It’s this great olfactory machine in our brain that starts working every time it picks up any odour present. My personal memory leads me to kitchen tables with family whether it be Descenzano, Padenghe or the hamlet of Busseto in the Emilia-Romagna region. Grappa was present as a digestive on many occasions. If it wasn’t drunk neat there was always the ‘caffè corretto alla grappa’, a shot of espresso with some drops of grappa. My guide Ilva Vezzaro hosts my tour in perfect English. I get the full monty: the very first historical family stories, the different stages of production, the various spirit outcomes – from grappa, to gin, to amaro, to vermouth and to liquors – till the present modern company set up.
It was during his motor bike travels to Scotland in 1993 that fourth generation Jacopo Poli developed the idea of opening his distillery to visits, setting up a museum and thus telling the story of his family and that of grappa. In addition to the museum that opened in 1993, near the famous Bassano del Grappa bridge, a second exhibition space in 2011 was opened inside the Poli location in Schiavon, with unique and historical pieces relating to the history of distillation in Italy and in Veneto.
‘Comboni’ mobile still
At the end of the 19th century Gio Batta Poli began distilling by going from winery to winery with his flowing-steam-distilling apparatus, the comboni. Mobile distilling disappeared for fiscal reasons since their production could not be checked by the state. The huge mobile alembiques carriage is parked on the first floor to mark the beginnings of grappa production by Gio Batta Poli in 1898.
A family grappa
Once in the tasting room my palate shows modesty (and stamina) when offered a glass of grappa at this early hour. Neatly displayed on barriques all the Poli products are there for me to taste. I have a special interest in three expressions. First a 13 year Old Aged grappa, Solera di famiglia, 55% abv. This Grappa Barrique Jacopo Poli comes from a very careful selection of pomace obtained from red grape varieties typical of the area surrounding Bassano. ‘The distillation process follows artisanal methods’, Ilva explains, ‘in which small batches are produced using a copper alembic powered by steam boilers to which innovative vacuum bain-marie stills have been added’. At the end of the distillation, the Grappa obtained is cut into a blend of different vintages, including those produced by Jacopo’s father, Toni, according to the traditional solera method, ‘which then leads to a bottle whose final refinement is 13 years’.
Raising in wood
A huge sign informs visitors about the grappa maturing process.
Time is the only ageing parameter considered by the law, estimated in year for the 'Vecchia' or 'Invecchiata' (Old or Aged) Grappa. A year and a half for the 'Riserva'or 'Stravecchia' (Very Old and Extra Old) ones.
Poli has a different view on maturing and prefers to talk about raising in wood rather than ageing in wood because it’s not just time as only decisive element.
Not a grappa
Second the La Première; a ‘grappa’ expression from French Bordeaux pomace (aux-de-vie de marc, 46% abv). Officially not a grappa because the pomace (aka marc) is not from Italy, but from di uve Francesi and distillata in Italia. In this case they are from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot grapes from Chateau Premier Grand Cru of Pauillac in France. ‘We have a steam distilled expression that has matured for 8 years in 225 liter barriques at the Poli Distillerie’.
Segretario di Stato
In the beginning, the only active whisky distillery in Italy was PUNI in Glurenza (South Tyrol region). This year came the announcement that the Strada Ferrata artisan distillery in Seregno (province of Monza and Brianza) is waiting for its first whisky to see the light of day in 2024. And now another Italian company, Poli Distillerie, is investing in whisky. It’s first expression is the Poli Segretario di Stato, a 5 y.o. single malt whisky (43 % abv) finished in Amarone barrels. ‘Probably the only whisky that will ever be produced’, says Ilva. ‘But never say never’.
Poli began working on whisky in October 2013, when Mons. Pietro Parolin, the most distinguished citizen of Schiavon, was appointed Secretary of State of the Holy See. An event that he, in agreement with mayor Mirella Cogo, wanted to celebrate in a special way with his family and the small community of Schiavon. And precisely because of the great respect for his figure, the Poli family wanted to sign an agreement for which the use of the name and the plan of St. Peter’s Square depicted on the label were authorized by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See. It would be an original tribute with a product in his honour, made with full respect. The first lot, bottled in December 2021, was produced in a limited edition of 1898 (!) pieces in a wooden box. The second batch will be around 3000 bottles. A small amount that will increase over time.
Laboratory director Roberto Minozzo sheds some more light on the process ‘We distill pure malt from Belgium, obtained mainly from Propino Concerto and Laureate; 60% of the malt is non-peated while 40% is smoked during kilning with the best Scottish peat, thus reaching phenols of 40 ppm. This imparts a delicate character of peat and smoke. The distillation takes place at the Poli Distillery, using our bain-marie pot still (see image below: alambicchi bagnomaria), purposely modified. We distill the malt and age the spirits separately and blend them after ageing’. Poli distills by hand in small batches with the Athanor, an alembic specially modified to preserve and enhance the properties of the raw material. It was purposely created to distill at lower temperatures, always below 60° C, to maintain unchanged the most precious scents and aromas easily thermolabile. After 4 years of maturation in oak barrels, the whisky is aged for at least one year in Amarone barrels. ‘They are from a nearby winery with which we have had a working cooperating for years now. But we prefer to maintain their name undisclosed’ Ilva adds.
I understand. There should always stay whiff of mystery. After all, this is a holy spirit.